Award-winning, British-American author Patrick Ness is no stranger to seeing his work adapted on both the big (and little) screen. In 2016, his heart-wrenching novel, A Monster Calls, which explored grief and loss through the use of a large, monstrous tree, was adapted by J.A. Bayona and had an all-star cast that featured Sigourney Weaver and Liam Neeson. On March 5, 2021, Ness’ dystopian series, CHAOS WALKING, which centers around a world where there are no women and all living creatures can hear each other’s thoughts in a stream of images, words, and sounds called Noise, will get the big-screen treatment in Doug Liman’s adaptation of the YA dystopian sci-fi series.
Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings had the opportunity to chat with author Patrick Ness via Zoom to discuss the film adaptation of CHAOS WALKING. During the interview, Ness discussed everything from how social media became an inspiration for the series, the poisonous side of masculinity, and more.
Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Patrick! How did you come up with the concept for the CHAOS WALKING book series, and did you ever think it would turn into a film?
Patrick Ness: The book was written around 2007/2008, and even then when social media was really taking off in its first wonderful, primal stage, the Wild West stage, the concept of having to listen to people when you didn’t want to was coming at us in a way that never had before in history. Even having to listen to people’s phone conversations, like people do today when they don’t use the earpiece, they talk into their phone and you hear everything and you’re like why, why?? So to me, the next logical question was what if you couldn’t get away? What if you had to share? And instead of implicitly obliging to share that social media puts on all of us, cause we’re supposed to share everything, apparently, what if you had to? What if you’re forced to? And how awful and noisy that would be if it was everyone. What if you were young and were trying to find out who you are and what was important and what you stood for – how would that affect you and how would that affect who you developed as a person.
So, it was an information overload idea and the world has only gotten noisier since, but we’re so used to it. But we are now starting to see how it can be used for real dark purposes, the spreading of misinformation, the hatchet jobs on people, etc. I am not a Luddite, I’m not saying put the genie back into the bottle because there’s so many wonderful things about social media, particularly queer youth finding our tribes kind of thing, and that is vitally important and it’s wonderful. But to keep that and to appreciate that we need to constantly acknowledge that there is a dark side that constantly needs reckoning with.
I’ve read some of your other books and I’m very excited to take on the CHAOS WALKING trilogy in the near future. That said, for both the book and the film, can you talk about the animosity we see from some of the men in Prentisstown towards women?
Patrick Ness: I wanted this idea of the noise and sharing thoughts involuntarily, though I’ve always been concerned with the theme of how [unintelligble] it’s not better than us or worse than us and either one of those we attack, you know? If it’s worse than us, well then we can attack it. But if it’s better than us, we need to bring it down, and it’s a source of so much strife against people who are otherwise very similar. So I thought, what if that difference were manifested every day in your face and you had to reckon with it at every moment in every interaction. So I just thought okay, make the difference between men and women and just feel out the truth of that. There’s a big underlying theme in the book around masculinity and its uses, but also its poisonous side. I wrote this 14 years ago and even in 13 years since we have increasingly seen evidence after evidence after evidence of how we just do not listen to women, to their severe pain, but to everyone as a whole, it makes everybody worse because we just haven’t listened. It’s not a sledgehammer film, I’m not trying to deliver a sermon, but it’s very much there, this idea of sure, masculinity can be put to good use for somebody who’s trying to figure out what being a man means. You can then define it yourself and you can decide what it means to really veer away from how long we’ve let it poison so very much.
Did you have Director Doug Liman in mind when it was announced that CHAOS WALKING was going to be adapted into a film?
Patrick Ness: It’s the studio decisions, but that’s not an underhanded insult. Fans will often ask me, who are you going to cast, and I’m like, they so don’t care what the author thinks (laughs). I mean they do but it’s a lot more involved than just my opinion. Doug Liman’s films have a sort of specialized flavor to them, they are very different which I really respect because I do try to do that in my own work, I try to find something different each time so that I can be fruitfully, creatively, afraid that I might fail, and I really liked that in his movies. Go, which is his second film after Swingers, which is the big one that everybody knew was his debut, I love Go. And I think Go is a great little film that people don’t talk about much. So I thought, okay, this is an interesting sensibility. He’s a really searching filmmaker and there’s always additional photography scheduled because he’s always on set trying to figure out what today will bring. I thought that energy was really good and he’s also a great shooter. There’s a horse racing sequence where there’s a woman in a field and this army of horses is coming and there’s a shot of her running and then surrounded by these horses and it’s such a great shot. That’s the goal you get from somebody like Doug Liman.
How involved were you during pre-production and were you on set a lot working alongside Doug?
Patrick Ness: Me and Christopher Ford, who wrote Spider-Man: Homecoming, wrote the screenplay together. I did talk to Doug a lot. I wrote a lot before he came on board, I drove a lot after he came on board. Doug likes having a screenwriter on set, sometimes it was me, sometimes it was Christopher, just to think, okay, where are we going next as the story organically develops. Filming was in rural Northern Quebec and it was breezy to get to, so I was there a lot (laughs).
How was it seeing two of the biggest names in Hollywood, Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley, in the roles of Todd Hewitt and Viola Eade?
Patrick Ness: I think their special sauce is that they’re approachable. When you see Daisy as Rey and you see Tom as Spider-Man, you wonder, but that’s not the case with every star. There’s different kinds of stardom and there’s different kinds of movie star, but I think that’s the secret to both of them, a kind of charm and approachability where you think, “Oh, I could see meeting them in high school, I could see meeting them in college, and us getting along,” and that is certainly not everybody. I so very much wanted Todd and Viola to be humans and not what can sometimes be teen romance archetypes. I wanted her to not need him, I wanted her to choose his help, and I wanted them to become friends before anything like that happens. The energy between them and the way that they’re funny together, in particular, feels like a slightly different flavor than what can often be done. I’m not complaining about those movies, I’m just saying that for this I wanted a slightly different feeling. I think they bring it really, really well.
What’s the biggest challenge you face when it comes to having your novels adapted for the screen?
Patrick Ness: Getting them made, it’s so hard (laughs). My dream was only to hold a book in my hand and I thought even that was impossible for a guy from a tiny little town. So when that happened I thought, “Fantastic, this is great! How lucky am I to achieve the dream?” Then all of this other stuff happens and you’re like, “Oh shit, what do I do now?” (laughs). I had a friend once say to me, cause I was freaking out about some really good news, and he said “Look, you handle success the same way you handle failure, with generosity and grace,” and I thought, “Okay, you know what, I don’t know that I can always achieve those, but they’re good to aim for.” It’s amazing and I just try not to think about it, you know? I’m always really happy when author friends get their movies made; I’m never jealous, I’m so thrilled. Do your best and try not to be a dick, that’s the best life philosophy.
What do you hope, ultimately, people take away from the movie and/or the book?
Patrick Ness: I never like to prescribe so people are allowed to think whatever they want, but what I do like is how the film has accidentally become about how a group of people when faced with an external environmental challenge, how they have handled it quite badly but they have also then found a way to make it work and that they still eventually found their humanity. It’s what we’ve done in the pandemic. The pandemic is terrible and everything, but we didn’t give up, we are still trying to find ways to make it work. And to me, that’s the best of humanity where we think, okay, well, I can only talk to you by a video screen, it’s not great, but we’ll do it, we’ll still connect. And in the movie, we’ve got this terrible problem, but you know what? We’re not going to stop, we’re going to figure it out and look what we’re doing: we figured it out and we’re going to keep figuring it out.
CHAOS WALKING arrives in theaters and IMAX on March 5, 2021.
Disclaimer/Editor’s Note: Nightmarish Conjurings doesn’t endorse seeing movies in theaters at this time due to the pandemic. Please consider VOD and/or Drive-In options and, if you go to the theater, please be safe.